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How Automation Benefits IT Operations: Good Automation Things Come in Threes

June 24, 2020

How Automation Benefits IT Operations: Good Automation Things Come in Threes

IT professionals talk about automation… sometimes ad nauseum. We generally understand its value, even if we’re tribally divided by the specifics of its application. For civilians, automation is a catch-all for using technology to wield skills and abilities outside their experience (like placing an order through a complex infrastructure) and access the world of vendors and goods they wouldn’t have time to connect with on their own. Despite IT debates about the how and why of automation, IT pros generally agree on its three primary benefits: Automation creates access to more capabilities in complex systems, improves efficiency to help meet cost objectives, and—best of all—reduces or eliminates human toil.

Embiggening Skills and Capabilities

We’d all like to believe we can quickly address any requirement on any system. While this is true for most senior engineers, it’s nonetheless functionally impossible. Yes, we can dive into any one elephantine, integrated control plane and bring infrastructure under control. But we can’t do it on all systems simultaneously because humans don’t scale well horizontally. However, automation allows experts to encapsulate their knowledge into actionable artifacts, accessible not just to themselves but to the entire team. You’ll occasionally hear someone worry they’re “automating themselves out of a job.” But admins who’ve learned automation technologies will tell you they’re automating themselves into a career.

Configuration change is a great example. Network engineers are famous for accomplishing command-line miracles but have plenty of experience with concurrent SevOne issues they must somehow prioritize. But by automating change tasks, especially the most common and routine ones, they effectively spread their expertise over multiple simultaneous demands. As a result, they’re increasingly turning to automation to meet business expectations for accelerating transformation, modernization, or whichever buzzword is trending at any given moment.

Outsourcing is another area where automation is seeing success. If you need 50 elegant, hand-etched glasses for your parents’ wedding anniversary shindig, you don’t buy the supplies, learn etching, and make them yourself. You go to Etsy, and a skilled artist creates something amazing, which is then billed to your credit card. It’s thoughtful touches as a service. MSPs who outsource IT operations have a unique opportunity to use automation to minimize cost while maximizing subscriber satisfaction. Because they have multiple customers, they often identify shared challenges and develop processes to address the needs of all subscribers. And if you’re an outsourcing customer, it’s reassuring when your MSP has automation and skills ready to go, allowing you to focus on more pressing issues. This is why work is outsourced in the first place.

Cost Management

You don’t see many Bentleys in the IT department parking lot. And the reason is simple. Bespoke, handmade things can be incredibly expensive. We buy things off the assembly line because we get most of the benefits for a fraction of the price. When your IT team relies on automation wherever possible, it increases their efficiency and lets them focus on important projects.

About once a year, I start looking for a 3-D printer. And every time I get one picked out, every time I rationalize dropping a grand on a decent one, I stop short. Three years later, it’d be dusty in a corner, perhaps worn out, and I’d be looking to upgrade again. So, year after year, I rely on printing services. I design the part and upload an STL file, and a few days later, the object is in my hand, ready to go.

Theoretically, I pay more per print than if I did it at home, but because my volume is so low, a service is a fraction of the cost of printing myself over time. I’m not buying the machine and consumables, and I have access to higher-quality materials (including titanium) and invest zero maintenance on an array of printers I could never afford anyway. In IT, we invest in building automated services because they turn the entire team into subscribers, each with access to high-quality, advanced capabilities and reduced errors. A bit of investment upfront spreads the costs over more users, and every time the automation is used, it produces an immediate incremental efficiency cost savings. Even though I haven’t found a legitimate excuse to print that one special titanium part, it’s great to know I can afford to.

Eliminating Human Toil

But of all the benefits of automation, the reduction of human toil is the one your team will notice most. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is based on the idea that humans need to fulfill basic needs before doing anything else. With basic needs like food, water, warmth, rest, safety, and security met, we can address higher-level needs like forming friendships and achieving our potential. When we’re doing everything in IT manually—particularly in highly reactive organizations—we have less or even no time for creativity and innovation. We waste our time at the bottom of Maslow’s IT pyramid keeping the lights on, closing break-fix tickets, and chasing bugs.

Businesses are increasingly winning against competitors by unleashing the previously untapped transformation skills of their IT professionals. But this can’t happen if everyone’s busy with mundane tasks. Automation can satisfy many basic incident needs, allowing the team to focus on the business’s more critical strategic needs. As a bonus, admins spend more time on more fulfilling work, reducing staff turnover, lost expertise, and onboarding costs.

Self-Actualized IT

Maybe the reduction of toil, democratic access to high quality, and keeping a little extra change in your IT pocket is the human connection to automation, IT or otherwise. It’s mechanically expressed thought technology, but its spirit is more art than science, more finesse than brute force. Great automation is thoughtful and aligns investment with the humans who will benefit from it.

It’s normal to be wary of handing over responsibility to your mechanical analog, but soon you realize you’re less frustrated, doing more rewarding work, and spending more time on the weekends with the people you love. That’s when you realize automation isn’t the other. Automation is toil-reducing, extra you, helping you reach your full human potential. I’d like to think Maslow would agree.


Patrick Hubbard is a Head Geek and technical product marketing director at SolarWinds. With over 20 years of IT experience spanning network management, data center, storage networks, VoIP, virtualization, and more, Hubbard's broad knowledge and hands-on expertise affirm his IT generalist authority. Hubbard’s initial interest in technology began with a grade school dive into Assembly on the Apple II, and eventually to a half-decade of technogenesis in skunkworks IT at American Airlines. Since then, Hubbard’s career has involved product management and strategy, technical evangelism, sales engineering and software development, all with a focus on application and service delivery for startups and Fortune 500 companies alike that span high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. Since joining SolarWinds in 2007, Hubbard has combined his technical expertise with his IT customer perspective to develop SolarWinds’ online demo platform, launch the Head Geek program and create helpful content that speaks to fellow networking and systems professionals. He runs SolarWinds’ customer education and training program to empower IT Pros to resolve their IT management problems quickly and easily with SolarWinds software. Hubbard is also a Cisco® NetVet and a regular speaker at technology conferences for Ethernet, IPv6 and SDN.